Inverting the Management Pyramid

A free org chart from vertex42.com. Commentary mine.

Your typical organization chart is shaped like a pyramid. Your CEO, founder, or organizational leader du jour is on the top, the people who report to them are shown underneath with lines reporting upwards, the people who report to them are shown another tier down, and so forth until you get to the base of the pyramid which is formed by the individual contributors.

I’d like to propose that this is exactly backwards and a terrible mental model.

When we see management structure printed out like this, it brings to mind the idea of bosses issuing orders to their reports, images of leaders at the head of the ship commanding the rowers of the boat to press onwards. The path is laid bare, the directions are clear, the organization marches forward in lockstep. What a great way to get the minimum possible done.

While we may enjoy imagery of our organization being like the boat crossing the Delaware with George Washington standing proud at the helm, few of us would actually appreciate being in the rower’s seat of that boat every day, even in the comfort of our climate-controlled offices. We prefer autonomy. We like the ability to determine the best path forward ourselves, with guidance from our leaders and managers but also with their trust that we will make a good decision on our own. A job where we have the opportunity to make choices and decisions ourselves is a job which is more fulfilling and provides us with more growth than one where we are simply executing orders delivered from above.

The benefits of this approach don’t just stop with the people who make up the organization having a stronger sense of purpose. When we have a say in the path forward, we’re naturally going to be more enthusiastic and feel a greater sense of intrinsic responsibility about the work being done. We’re more productive and committed. We have the chance not just to get task done but to grow and improve ourselves as we’re doing it. Oh, and chances are pretty good that the path we chose will be a better approach than whatever mandate our bosses might have given us.

So why do org charts get it so wrong by giving us pyramid imagery when thinking of managers and their team? At the risk of being overly facile, simply inverting the pyramid would go a long way towards evoking the type of relationship managers and their team should have to forge healthy, strong, and productive partnerships. Great managers are servants to their team. They recognize that the people they work with will only have as much room to grow and improve as their managers give them, and so they frame the work accordingly. Rather than deliver mandates, it is the manager’s role to offer guidance and enablement — to remove barriers and let the work get done. It’s more effort on both sides of the relationship than simply giving orders and executing on those directives, but the benefits of this approach are tremendous.

What sorts of images would you like to see replace the stale pyramid for your org chart? Does an inverted pyramid suffice, or is there a better way to capture the interpersonal relationships of a healthy modern organization?

Justin Houk is an engineering manager at Rapid7, a security products and services company.